Future’s Rambling # 65
At a recent internal workshop one of our designers shared photos from a recent trip to Italy and Amsterdam. It wasn’t a vacation, but you would have a hard time convincing anyone of that after seeing the inspirational snapshots and hearing recollections of the pasta and red wine consumed.
The trip offered a unique opportunity for a group of Australian designers to visit the studios of a number of furniture manufacturer’s studios, ranging from very small providers like Maxalo, Cartel and Living Divani to the larger B & B Italia. Of the stories shared, one that really struck a chord involved a visit to the furniture maker Edra. This company was described as ‘courtier’, where the others they visited were the ‘ready to wear’ variety. For those unfamiliar with clothing and design jargon the best way to explain this is to note every piece of Edra furniture is made by hand.
One of their pieces, the Vermelha rope chair, is particularly special because there is a guy at Edra who weaves the rope to form this chair by hand, apparently he is the only one at Edra who knows how to do this! You can’t get much more bespoke than that and in a world where so many things are mass produced how refreshing and wonderful is it to hear that something is actually made by hand!
It’s wonderful! But is it? On the surface it’s a good news story, but digging deeper we learn Mr. Chair Gepetto is in his mid- seventies and has no successor which means not only is there is no succession plan in place for Edra but also chair extinction at stake. This guy better start weaving lessons for the younger employees without delay or the Vermelha will be gone faster than the Dodo, the Tasmanian Wolf, Quagga and the Caspian Tiger.
The loss of master craftspeople is an issue many companies who rely on bespoke products face. An example close to home is the Sydney custom shoemaker who has been making handmade shoes from his Paddington studio for years. His business relies on a diminishing number of older European men who make components for his shoes and there are fewer and fewer of them around. Obviously he wants to sustain his business, but that is not going to happen by staying the course. Consequently, he has elected to manufacture more components himself. This compromises the uniqueness, but ensures the business will be sustainable.
Another organisation coming to terms with the challenges of making product by hand is Apple. It might surprise you to know that an estimated 90% of an iPhone is made in a place called Foxconn City in Shenzhen China, where thousands of workers assemble the phones – by hand! Over 200 million iPhones have been assembled there. Foxconn is owned by Taiwan’s Hon Hai Group and is one of the world’s biggest contract manufacturers, their clients include Apple, Dell and Hewlett-Packard.
For fun if you ask Siri, the private personal assistant that responds to voice commands featured in the iPhone 4s, where she came from she will politely reply the Apple Corporation in Cupertino California. If you get tricker and ask where she was manufactured the response takes a slight tone of belligerence, she claims she can’t answer that question.
The fact that iPhones are made overseas aggravates many people including The President of the United States. It puts his POTUS boxers in twist that almost all of the 70 million iPhones, 30 million iPads and 59 million other Apple products are made overseas. It rubs salt in the deep wounds of painful US unemployment figures. Obama challenged Steve Jobs, the late founder and CEO of Apple to bring the jobs back to America. He said no thanks.
One reason Apple likes working with Foxconn is their ability to respond to last minute design changes, such as the switch of the iPhone screen material only weeks before the device was to ship. Foxconn mobilised 8000 workers to respond to this change, which is slightly easier for them given many employees live in dormitories on site. They can shake them out of bed and get them to the factory floor fitting new glass into the bevelled iPhone frames before they’ve rubbed the sleep from their eyes. It took the Chinese an impressive 96 hours to make the design shift!
Another reason Apple and several other tech companies use Foxconn, stems from the access they have to a massive talent pool, 430,000 employees at the ready. It only took 15 days to find 8700 industrial engineers to oversee and guide the 200,000 people on the assembly line required to make the change to the iPhone glass. It would take months to find, interview and hire new people let alone make changes to the assembly process in most developed countries.
You could say it is the hand-made aspect of the Apple product that has afforded their designers the flexibility to make last minute changes that have resulted in what those in the ‘cult of Apple’ consider to be product perfection. There is no doubt, Apple products are beautiful – never mind how they work.
Of course for every glass half full story, there is an opposite glass half empty saga. One little nagging thorn in our side that accompanies the love of beautiful handmade objects results from the inherent knowledge we have that some poor schmo put their heart and soul into making them and did not get paid fairly for their efforts. We don’t care. Whether it’s a hand knit scarf, an oriental rug or an iPad, we enjoy beautiful handmade objects, but enjoy them even more when we don’t have to pay full price for them.
We are blissfully ignorant or in denial of the conditions some objects are made in. A visit to Foxconn would highlight a number of stark contrasts to the indulgent workplaces we drool over in the glossy pages of Indesign magazine. Beyond the dormitories and massive quantities of food prepared on site, there are 20 cafeterias that serve three tons of pork and 13 tons of rice a day, there are rumoured armed guards at the factory gates controlling the orderly entry and exit of the 430,000 employees.
Stories have surfaced of a dozen Foxconn employees committing suicide, overcome with the stress of maintaining aggressive production schedules. When making products by hand, the process can only move as fast as the slowest worker; therefore, peer pressure is very intense as you might imagine. To combat further employee leaps into the hereafter, Foxconn have installed large nets around the factory building perimeter in a caring effort to prevent any further impulsive suicides.
Just when you thought the stories of unpleasant conditions could get no worse there are stories of the chemicals used in the assembly line process. One, called N – Hexane, is used to wipe of the glass surface of the iPhone and iPad screens and is a potent neurotoxin. Prolonged exposure to N-Hexane caused workers to shake uncontrollably so they have had to go back to using alcohol, which takes longer to evaporate and slows the assembly line down.
It is important to point out that Apple are not the bad guys in this particular situation, as mentioned Foxconn make electronics for Dell, Nokia, Samsung and HP, a third of all electronics products made come from Shenzhen. Of that group Apple were the only ones who cared enough to investigate. They sent their chief operating officer Tim Cook to China to review operations and following his visit they made a series of recommendations including hiring psychological counsellors and establishing a 24 hour care centre. You can read about their commitment to social responsibility by reading the Apple Supplier Responsibility 2011 Progress Report.
This leads us to an important question, should we feel badly about our iPhone 4s, our Tabriz oriental rug or the inexpensive bricks we used for our house that were made by kidnapped children in the brick kilns of Shanxi Province?
Paul Krugman the New York Times columnist and winner of the Nobel prize for economic says we shouldn’t. His rational is to highlight changes that have occurred in Indonesia where factories are far worse than those in China. They have raised the economy and improved the overall quality of life and that is a good thing. His conclusion the “indirect and unintended result of the actions of soulless multinationals and repugnatious entrepreneurs” result in moving hundreds of thousands of people from abject poverty to something that is still awful, but significantly better.
But hey, just because he won a Nobel prize does not mean he is right.
Barboza, David; A Night at the Electronics Factory; The New York Times, June 19, 2010
Chicago Public Media, This American Life #454 – Mike Daisey and the Apple Factory
Duhigg, Charles and Bradsher, Keith; US Can’t Crack Apple’s Glass Ceiling; The Australian Financial Review, January 24, 2012
French, Howard F, Child Slave Labor Revelations Sweeping China; The New York Times, June 15, 2007
Helft, Miguel; Apple Says Chinese Supplier Made Changes After Suicides; The New York Times, February 15, 2011
Isaccson Walter, Steve Jobs Autobiography; Doubleday 2011
Chicago Public Media, This American Life #454 – Mike Daisey and the Apple Factory